The Association of Persuasion and Virtue

Word Count: 495

Phronesis (φρόνησις) is introduced by Aristotle in book II of The Rhetoric as one of the three things that gain the audience’s trust in a speaker and is translated from Greek into “practical wisdom” [1]. Aristotle discusses phronesis as one of two types of wisdom (the other being Sophia) and explains its relation to virtue in his writing: “Practical wisdom then, must be a reasoned and trued state of capacity to act with regard to human goods” [2]. Plato, in The Republic goes so far as to list phronesis (as prudence) to be one of the four cardinal virtues [3]. A speaker then, who acts and presents their argument in regards for the general good, is acting with phronesis—they take the persuasive techniques as discussed by Aristotle that are necessary to make an affective claim, while taking into consideration that whatever it is they are supporting is prudent.

Phronesis is concerned with the particularities of a situation in deliberating the necessary outcome. The morality of the situation is determined then primarily on the basis of the location, context, and surrounding events. One example of this at work in rhetoric is Isocrates’ Helen, wherein Isocrates analyzes Paris’ choice of Helen out of all the gifts he was offered; suggesting that while the gifts were discussed in terms of universal ideas, in the case of Helen, beauty, it was ultimately the particularizes (Helen’s connection to Zeus) wherein the deliberator (Paris) reached his conclusion [4]. Aristotle’s Rhetoric suggests that the rhetor whom utilizes phronesis in their deliberative actions is someone who analyzes that particular situation in relation to the whole, and the benefits (virtue) that could result from that situation.

The deliberative nature connected with phronesis inherently links the concept to politics; wherein throughout history, and in the status quo, we can point to any action by a leader and establish whether or not that individual acted with prudence/practical wisdom.

Within the field of rhetoric Phronesis has, in recent years, regained its primacy as inextricably linked to the rhetor and their actions not only in a political (deliberative) context but also for any individual in a role of power. Holt (2006) writes that: “By persuading people of the necessity of a specific strategy managers can enlist resources through the identification of mutual satisfaction, typically expressed as a blend of power and external benefits” [5]. In this sense, the absence of phronesis is being discussed—just as politicians who speak persuasively on a given subject that may not be virtuous, so do managers engage in this empty rhetoric that masks the true intentions and benefits (or drawbacks) of accepting what the rhetor says to be true. Now, more than ever, we find ourselves wary of the rhetor with false intentions, absent of virtue, and tricking us into believing that they are acting in the best interest of society. Phronesis remains the ideal: ways to measure the rhetoric used and decide if we trust that which is before us.



1. The Rhetoric of Aristotle. Trans. Lane Cooper. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall International, 1932. Print.

2. Self, L. (1979). Rhetoric and Phronesis: The Aristotelian Ideal. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 12(2), 130-145. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

3. The Republic. Tran. Desmond Lee. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 1955. Print.

4. Schwarze, S. (1999). Performing Phronesis: The Case of Isocrates' Helen. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 32(1), 78-95. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

5. Holt, R. (2006). Principals and practice: Rhetoric and the moral character of managers. Human Relations, 59(12), 1659-1680. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

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